Yesterday, the U.S. Supreme Court granted certiorari in Students for Fair Admissions v. Harvard, a case challenging Harvard’s use of racial preferences in admissions for the benefit of Blacks. Today, Harvard’s president, Lawrence Bacow, sent a message to the Harvard community bemoaning the cert grant.
By my count, the letter must have gone to four members of the Supreme Court by virtue of their having attended Harvard (and in one case also being a dean there). Bacow seems to be lobbying the Court.
Yesterday, the Supreme Court announced a decision that could put forty years of legal precedent at risk. Colleges and universities could lose the freedom and flexibility to create diverse campus communities that enrich education for all. Our admissions process, in which race is considered as one factor among many, makes us stronger. It prompts learning in day-to-day exchanges in our classrooms and laboratories, in our residential houses, and on our playing fields and stages. Our students understand these truths and see them reflected in their interactions with their classmates. Diversity opens our eyes to the promise of a better future.
Harvard celebrates and nurtures individuality as intensely as this nation. Those who challenge our admissions policies would ask us to rely upon a process far more mechanistic, a process far more reliant on simple assessments of objective criteria. Each of us is, however, more than our numbers, more than our grades, more than our rankings or scores. Ask yourself, how much have you learned from other people at this University? How much have you grown from conversations across difference? Would these conversations have been as rich if you had shared the same interests, the same life experiences, and—yes—the same racial or ethnic background as your fellow community members? This is why applications of any kind routinely go beyond mere numbers to include interviews, samples of work product, recommendations, and references. Narrowly drawn measures of academic distinction are not the only indicators of individual promise.
As the Supreme Court has recognized many times, race matters in the United States. I long for the day when it does not, but we still have miles to go before our journey is complete. Harvard will continue to defend with vigor admissions policies that were endorsed in the thoughtful decisions of two federal courts that concluded that we do not discriminate; our practices are consistent with Supreme Court precedent; there is no persuasive, credible evidence warranting a different outcome. Though I wish yesterday had turned out differently, I remain confident that the rule of law—and the respect for precedent that perpetuates it—will prevail.
Bacow’s comments are incorrect or misleading in several respects. Most fundamentally, although Bacow says that Harvard considers race as “one factor among many,” the record in this case is clear, and Harvard did not dispute, that race is the determinative factor every year for large numbers of applicants. That’s what it means to discriminate against a group on the basis of race.
In addition, Bacow’s complaint that the Asian-American students bringing the lawsuit want Harvard to use “mechanistic” admissions policy is disingenuous at several levels. First, Harvard’s admissions process is already mechanistic. How else to explain why Harvard ends up admitting almost the same percentage of Blacks to its freshman class every year?
Second, the Asian-American students aren’t contesting Harvard’s right to use factors other than grades, test scores, and extra curricular activities to make admissions decisions. Harvard is free to factor in a “personality ranking.”
But Harvard isn’t free to use personality rankings to the detriment of one racial or ethnic group and for the benefit of another. Bacow neglects to inform the Harvard community, including those four Supreme Court Justices, that Asian-American applicants consistently score way below Blacks in the personality ranking. They score just low enough to bring their representation in freshman classes down to where Harvard wants it. This practice is “systemic” and, in a sense, mechanistic.
Subjective factors like “personality” were once used to exclude or limit black applicants for employment. That was true in some of the cases I litigated as a government civil rights lawyer in the 1970s. It was a particularly offensive form of discrimination.
It still is, regardless of which group is being dinged for “personality.” Harvard’s admissions officers are consistently finding that, compared to other groups of applicants, Asian-American applicants fall short on qualities like courage and integrity.
This, despite the fact that based on the other metrics, academics and extracurriculars, they are the highest achievers. How are Asian-Americans achieving so much in such a range of ways with such allegedly poor personal qualities in comparison to Blacks?
One way or another, the way Harvard uses personality ratings amounts to race discrimination. It’s either a blatant display of anti-Asian bias or a pretext for favoring black applicants because of their race. Maybe it’s both.
Finally, given Bacow’s statement about race mattering in America, I should point out that Asian-Americans have suffered plenty of discrimination here. Thanks to Harvard and other elite colleges and universities, they still are.